Cheltenham Reflections

Let me begin by offering a complete, full and unreserved apology to trainer Paul Nicholls. In the immediate aftermath of the re-arranged King George I was suggesting Kauto Star should be retired . . .  how wrong was I?

Racing is a diverse sport and those who do bother to read my live reports from tracks up and down the country will be aware I am not backwards in coming forwards if I think a race is dire or terrible. Unfortunately we seem to be getting more uncompetitive races, although most racing, I hasten to add is usually enjoyable.

Occasionally you get to see something special. Something so electric you forget the wet mid-week afternoons at a bleak gaff track.

I realise I am privileged in that I do get to see some exceptional races. Even though my heart is more with national hunt than flat racing, I was privileged to be at Epsom when we first had an inkling of how good Sea The Stars may be.

I was at Longchamp the following October when, from what looked like an impossible position, Mick Kinane pressed the button on Sea The Stars and I was one of many hardened observers with tears flowing at the awesome run we had seen.

WorkforceBack to Epsom last June, not expecting too much after the previous years race, and Workforce came home a convincing winner but the cynics amongst us were asking “what had he beaten” . . . . until judge Nick Bostock came over the PA to announce he has won in a record time.

Then there was that surreal Thursday at Cheltenham. It was the day after the meeting had been lost to the high winds and we had a massive ten race card to help catch up. In the delayed Queen Mother Champion Chase we witnessed a precocious runner from the Paul Nicholls yard destroy a high class field, coming home 19 lengths clear . . . . his name . . . . Master Minded. Then just over an hour later Kasbah Bliss once again came in striking distance of his nemesis but had to play second fiddle as Inglis Drever recorded his third World Hurdle victory.

Roll forward to the 2011 Festival and even before the start of racing we had seen enough impressive performances to live in the memory.

On Tuesday Hurricane Fly showed us what we had missed over the past few years, as he finally managed to arrive at the festival without any setbacks. How many Champion Hurdles could he have won had he not had all those setbacks?  We then saw Quevega take David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle for the third year running, showing she still remains in a class of her own.

Wednesday was, arguably, a little bit flat – although connections of Sizing Europe, the new two mile champion, would disagree.

Thursday was another day for the sentimentalists. Returning winners in the Championship races are not that uncommon, to win back to back races in an ultra-competitive handicap takes some doing, so it was quite an achievement for the David Pipe team as Buena Vista took the Pertemps Final for the second year running. It was also some redemption for young claimer Conor O’Farrel who suffered the ignominy of managing to fall of his horse on the run-in when looking a certain winner at Taunton recently.

Next up the enigmatic Albertas Run retained his Ryanair crown despite some moron running onto the track with some protest, seemingly against Ryanair.
This incident produced the quote of the week from Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary who said,  "If some idiot wants to try and make some publicity for himself let him" . . . this from the King of publicity gimmicks.

The best was yet to come as Big Bucks went on to win his third consecutive World Hurdle . . .  coming home to rapturous cheers and seeing off the young pretender, but a potential star of the future, Grands Crus.

Thursday was not a good day for the handicapper though as David Pipe’s Junior made a complete mockery of the handicap, coming home 24 lengths clear in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir.

So onto Friday and the most open Gold Cup in years. It was hailed as the battle of the “big four” three previous winners and a young upstart.

To add spice there were question marks hanging over all four of them. Denman and Kauto Star were “too old”, Imperial Commander had fitness worries and Long Run had disappointed on previous Cheltenham runs.

In the end only one of the concerns seemed justified.

There was also a certain irony when watching the race. In recent years the focus has been on the rivalry between Kauto Star and Denman, yet somehow there never was the epic battle. This year, without the hype, we finally had the battle.

At the top of the hill the “big four” were all in contention. By the bottom of the hill and the turn for home Imperial Commander had proved his doubters right.

As they turned for home side by side, in front, were the pensioners Kauto Star and Denman and on their heels was the young pretender Long Run.

Two out the old boys were still locked together but by the final fence the young pretender was there and all the other two could do was watch as he pulled clear.

Long RunYesterday afternoon the baton was passed from the older generation to the younger generation.

The “old boys” were far from disgraced, unlike the boxer who never knows when to stop, they come out of yesterdays race with pride, with dignity and, in equine terms, their heads held high.

As to who is the better of Kauto Star and Denman . . .  who cares? Both are brave horses, both have done their connections proud. Both have bought delight to followers of the sport and they have been the best ambassadors the sport can have.

So another Cheltenham is over, as I write this on the day after the Festival I am still tired from four frenetic days.

The build-up seems to go on forever yet the four days themselves seem to fly by. It seems it was only yesterday I was at Sandown for the Imperial Cup.

Covering the Festival is hard work. In the food chain of racing journalism I am somewhere in the plankton level. This means I am “relegated” from the main Press Room at Cheltenham to the outer reaches of the Media Centre in the Guinness Village.

That is a double edged sword. By all accounts the Media Centre is less frenetic than the main Press Room. The Media Centre is also home to most of the Irish press corps and I have to say they are great fun to be with. We also seem to have more space to work down there.

The disadvantages are being in the Guinness Village it is even more difficult to move around the course. Also those of us based there have no reserved spot from which to see the racing. We have to fight for a place in the crowd or watch on TV.

Even watching on TV isn’t simple when you want to analyse a race as the pictures we receive in the Media Centre as the Channel Four shots, which tend to change angle far too frequently. Now that may be nice for the occasional viewer at home (and I have to say they are nothing like as bad as the French with their arty shots) but they are a nightmare when attempting to read a race with 20 plus runners.

The other nightmare was the problems with the wi-fi on the first two days. I have to confess I was luckier than most in I had a 3G dongle as backup – it wasn’t ideal but at least I had something, which is more than most.

On the subject of the wi-fi problems I would like to pay tribute to Cheltenham and all the IT staff who worked very long hours and when the problems were finally resolved the wi-fi was extremely impressive in terms of speed.

Putting it all into perspective the niggles were minor. They were not insurmountable and most of all I was, once again, able to say “I was there.”

It’s only 361 days to next year’s Cheltenham Festival . . .  so who do you think will beat Long Run in the Gold Cup next year?   



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